The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community

The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community

by David C. Korten
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Berrett-Koehler Publishers


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The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community

In his classic international bestseller, When Corporations Rule the World, David Korten exposed the destructive and oppressive nature of the global corporate economy and helped spark a global resistance movement. Here, Korten argues that corporate consolidation of power is merely one manifestation of what he calls "Empire": the organization of society through hierarchy and violence that has largely held sway for the past 5,000 years. The Great Turning masterfully traces the roots of Empire to ancient times and charts the long evolution of its favored Instruments of control, from monarchies and bureaucracies to the transnational institutions of the global economy. Empire is not the natural order of things - we can turn away from it. Korten draws on evidence from sources as varied as evolutionary theory, developmental psychology, and religious teachings to make the case that "Earth Community" - a life-centered, egalitarian, sustainable way of ordering human society based on democratic principles of partnership - is indeed possible. And he details a grassroots strategy for beginning the momentous turning toward a future of as-yet-unrealized human potential.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781887208079
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Publication date: 05/14/2006
Series: BK Currents Series
Pages: 424
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Dr. David C. Korten is a co-founder and board chair of the Positive Futures Network, which publishes YES! A Journal of Positive Futures; founder and president of the People-Centered Development Forum; an associate of the International Forum on Globalization; a member of the Club of Rome; and serves on the boards of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economics and the Bainbridge Graduate Institute. He has authored or edited numerous books, including When Corporations Rule the World, The Post-Corporate World, and Globalizing Civil Society.

Read an Excerpt

The Great Turning

From Empire to Earth Community
By David C. Korten

Berrett-Koehler Publishers

Copyright © 2006 David C. Korten
All right reserved.

Chapter One

The Choice

Energy always flows either toward hope, community, love, generosity, mutual recognition, and spiritual aliveness or it flows toward despair, cynicism, fear that there is not enough, paranoia about the intentions of others, and a desire to control. Michael Lerner

All societies are patterned on either a dominator model-in which human hierarchies are ultimately backed up by force or the threat of force-or a partnership model, with variations in between.

Riane Eisler

In the early 1970s, while teaching at the Central American Management Institute in Nicaragua, I made several visits to a cattle ranch in Costa Rica I'll call Hacienda Santa Teresa. The simple but compelling story of this ranch captures for me the essence of the tragedy of unrealized human possibility that plays out at all levels of society, from relationships among nations, to relationships within nations, between races and genders, within families, and among individuals. The names are fictional. The story is true.


When Juan Ricardo took charge of the Hacienda Santa Teresa as manager in 1970, its lands, roads, fences, and buildings were in poor repair; many of its cattle were in poor health from a lack of necessary mineral supplements and vaccinations. Most ofthe sabaneros, the workers who looked after the cattle, were single men who lived in a dilapidated, unpainted one-room bunkhouse, where they slept on wooden planks. The peones, who did the manual labor, shared a similar but separate facility in which they simply slept on the floor for lack even of wooden planks. Each received a small wage plus a ration of rice, beans, lard, coffee, and occasionally corn flour for tortillas. These conditions were standard for the region.

Sabaneros in those parts were often related to one another and formed tight-knit groups. For the most part they were cleaner and more concerned with the appearance of their quarters than the peones, but were still lax in their personal hygiene and generally in poor health. They had a reputation for honesty, did their jobs well, and commanded a certain grudging respect from the ranchers, who depended on them to care for the cattle on distant pastures.

Like most others in the region, the sabaneros at Hacienda Santa Teresa were responsible for providing their own equipment, which was often in poor repair. Their bridles had no bits, their ropes were old, and they lacked basic rain gear even though heavy rainstorms were common. The ranch provided their horses, which received minimal care. The sabaneros did not know how to trim their horses' hooves properly and took no care to remove ticks from the animals' hides.

The peones built fences, repaired roads, cleared land, and constructed corrals and buildings-tasks for which some of them had considerable skill. They were, however, considered incorrigible thieves who needed strict supervision. They were expected to respond to any order with subservience and respect. Because labor-code provisions only took effect after three months of employment, many ranchers made a point of never keeping a peón that long. The sabaneros were disdainful of the peones, whom they considered dirty, unprincipled, irresponsible, and ignorant, and felt they were entitled to give the peones arbitrary orders.

Ricardo observed that many of the peones, who were paid hourly wages, were hardworking and, by working voluntary overtime, sometimes earned more than the salaried sabaneros. However, the peones lived in complete filth and took no initiative even in matters directly affecting their own comfort and well-being. At the end of the workday, they dropped their tools where they stood and returned to the bunkhouse unless otherwise instructed. The next morning they lined up awaiting orders. If a peón saw a cow walking through a hole in a fence, he would stand and watch unless ordered to retrieve it. Petty theft was a continuing annoyance.

Ricardo concluded that both the ranch and its staff had unrealized possibilities. He set out to test his theory that by treating his workers like responsible adults they would respond accordingly. One of his first steps was to improve their health by providing each with a raincoat and a mattress and adding eggs, meat, vegetables, and cheese to their diet. He then raised the wages of the sabaneros by 25 to 30 percent, raised the starting wage of the peones by 20 percent, and implemented a policy of deducting the cost of lost tools.

He appointed the informal leader of the sabaneros as head sabanero and gave him an additional raise and a wristwatch. However, instead of assigning each sabanero ten to fifteen horses, as was standard in the area, he cut them back to three, bought them new saddles, and taught them to de-tick their horses and trim the hooves. The initial blow to the sabaneros' status from the reduction in their number of horses soon gave way to a sense of pride in having the best horses in the region.

Ricardo took a similar approach with the peones. Instead of simply issuing orders to the peones when they gathered for work in the morning, Ricardo started asking them to suggest what work most needed doing -for example, cleaning a field or digging post holes. At first, they were confused. One quit, complaining he was being asked to make too many decisions. Others, once they got used to speaking up, became contentious, insisting they should finish one job before doing another that Ricardo considered more urgent. Ricardo recognized this as a normal and necessary part of the process.

At the time of my final visit to the ranch, two years after Ricardo's arrival, the ranch and its workers were advancing toward an extraordinary transformation. The sabaneros were regularly treating the cattle for parasites, vaccinating them, providing them with salt licks, doing pregnancy tests, and managing breeding.

Ricardo had assigned individual sabaneros and peones responsibility for managing remote sections of the ranch. For the sabaneros this meant tending to the cattle. For the peones it meant maintaining the fences and pastures. For the married workers among them, Ricardo was also building individual cement blockhouses in which a worker would live with his family on his assigned section of the ranch. Ricardo had upgraded other peones to positions as tractor drivers and carpenters. One was responsible for heavy-equipment maintenance.

During the two-year period the herd had increased from seven hundred to thirteen hundred with no increase in the size of the staff. The calving rate had increased from 33 percent to 62 percent, and Ricardo hoped to get it up to 85 percent by the end of the next year.


By replacing relationships based on domination and disdain with relationships based on partnership and mutual respect, Ricardo awakened otherwise suppressed potentials in both his workers and the natural productive systems of the ranch, enhancing the life of the whole and all its members-including the horses and cattle.

Long conditioned to subservience and degrading living arrangements, the sabaneros and peones needed time to respond. For some, accepting their own potential for skilled and responsible self-direction was more than they could handle and they took their leave. Others, however, found the courage to embrace the opportunity that Ricardo presented to them.

I find an important lesson in this story for those inclined to describe human nature in terms of some basic characteristic of individualism, selfishness, or greed. Anyone who observed these men at the time of Ricardo's arrival might have concluded, with justification, that it was their nature to be lazy and incapable of responsible self-direction. Anyone who saw them three years later would likely conclude it was their nature to be hardworking and self-managing. Both conclusions, however, describe only possibilities. Neither describes the workers' nature, which embodied a remarkable capacity to adapt to their circumstances.

Such stories of microexperiments are almost a cliché in the field of organizational development. Skilled and thoughtful managers have achieved such results endless times in countless settings. Negotiate the turning from the organizing principles of Empire to the organizing principles of Earth Community, and long-suppressed creative energies flow forth to actualize extraordinary potential. The results of such micro-experiments, however, are rarely sustained. The reason is a lesson in the implications of a world organized by the dominator principles of Empire.

Consider a larger truth not addressed in the story of the Hacienda Santa Teresa as presented above. The real power resided not with the sabaneros and peones, nor even with Ricardo, but with the owners of the ranch.

These were three wealthy playboys who lived in the United States and used the ranch as a tax write-off. The grandly elegant ranch house served as a secluded trysting place for liaisons with the U.S. girlfriends they from time to time brought down in their private airplane on tax-deductible vacations. Ricardo was also a U.S. citizen of European extraction. He took great pride in his work and in particular his role in the transformation of the hacienda's workforce, but he was not an owner and would one day return to the United States. The positive innovations he introduced notwithstanding, the legal relationships of a dominator society remained in place.

For instance, Ricardo retained the power to fire any of the workers at any time with minimal recourse. Similarly, the owners had the power to fire Ricardo at will and reestablish the old way of working. Furthermore, the profits from what Ricardo and the ranch hands accomplished went to those absentee owners, who had had no part in transforming the ranch into a profitable enterprise and for whom even the profits were an incidental windfall.

For these reasons, although the case powerfully demonstrates a range of human possibility, the organizational context in which it occurred also exemplifies the injustices of an imperial global order. We can imagine, however, the possibilities if one day those whose labor made the ranch productive were to become its worker-owners and thus truly the masters of their own fate.

For me, the Hacienda Santa Teresa story has come to serve as a metaphor of the human condition in a world divided between those who rule and those who live in dependence, exclusion, and marginalization. When juxtaposed with the missed possibility of how things can work, the human condition as we know it is a tragic, self-inflicted crime against ourselves.

I also see in this story an important lesson in practical politics. Creating societies that support all their individual members in realizing their full humanity is neither a distinctively liberal nor a distinctively conservative cause.

Ricardo's approach honors both liberal and conservative values. He increased individual initiative and accomplishment at the same time he increased the sense of community and mutual responsibility. He increased the productivity of the ranch and at the same time made it far more equitable, democratic, and alive. His innovations increased freedom, discipline, individual responsibility for the self, and collective responsibility for the overall performance of the ranch.

There was greater competition to excel but also more genuine cooperation. Ricardo pursued neither ideology nor personal power, but rather a mature vision of human possibility and the benefits of a healthy living community of people, plants, and animals. In so doing, he affirmed and expressed his own humanity.


Within the limits of its ownership structure, the Hacienda Santa Teresa case illustrates two primary models of organizing human relationships. The first approach features the classic model of a dominance hierarchy, in which direction flows from top to bottom. The second, quite different approach emphasizes teamwork and self-direction. Cultural historian Riane Eisler calls these, respectively, the dominator and partnership models. One both denies and represses the human potential for creative self-direction, cooperation, and voluntary service to the well-being of the whole. The other nurtures and rejoices in it. Each creates its own self-fulfilling prophecy. The differences in outcome can be breathtaking, as the Hacienda Santa Teresa case illustrates.

Throughout this book, I use Empire and Earth Community as generic labels for these two contrasting models for organizing human relationships. Each model is supported by its own cultural values, institutional forms, and supporting narratives. Since pure cases of either model are rare in the complex world of human affairs, think of them as competing tendencies. Table 1.1 summarizes their defining characteristics. By recognizing their contrasting natures and consequences, we can be more conscious of which we serve in each cultural, economic, and political choice we make.

I have chosen to use the term Earth Community rather than simply Community throughout The Great Turning to underscore the integral relationship so important to the human future between human communities and the natural communities that sustain them. The term Earth Community comes from the Earth Charter, a "Declaration of Interdependence and Universal Responsibility" created through a multiyear collaborative process involving hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals of diverse religious faiths, cultures, races, languages, and nationalities.

Competing Narratives

Empire and Earth Community flow from sharply contrasting worldviews. The narrative of Empire, which emphasizes the demonstrated human capacity for hatred, exclusion, competition, domination, and violence in the pursuit of domination, assumes humans are incapable of responsible self-direction and that social order must be imposed by coercive means. The narrative of Earth Community, which emphasizes the demonstrated human capacity for caring, compassion, cooperation, partnership, and community in the service of life, assumes a capacity for responsible self-direction and self-organization and thereby the possibility of creating radically democratic organizations and societies. These narratives represent two sides of a psychic tension that resides within each of us. One focuses on that which divides us and leads to fear and often violent competition. The other focuses on that which unites us and leads to trust and cooperation.

These competing tendencies are expressed in the tension between the feminine predisposition to bond for mutual protection in the face of danger and the masculine predisposition to fight or take flight. Yet while one tendency or the other may be more fully expressed in a given individual or society, both reside in each of us-male or female-which helps to account for the wide variety of the human experience. Healthy social function depends on maintaining a balance between these tendencies. Empire's five thousand years of male domination demonstrate the tragic consequences of imbalance.

The competing narratives are also reflected in the range of qualities attributed to God in different cultures. At one extreme is the wrathful God of Empire who demands exclusive loyalty, favors one people over another, lives apart from his creation, rules through anointed earthly representatives, and extracts a terrible vengeance on his enemies and the unbelievers. At the other extreme is the universal loving God/dess of Earth Community, the intrinsic, omnipresent living Spirit beyond gender that manifests itself in every aspect of Creation.

Love and fear are both integral to our human nature and necessary for our full development. Love is a binding spiritual force that opens our minds and hearts to life's creative possibilities. Fear alerts us to real dangers and focuses our attention to ensure that we do not neglect our own survival needs. However, when fear awakens our defenses, it also evokes our capacity for violence, including violence against those we love. How we resolve the tension between love and fear has major consequences for the course of our lives-and our politics. The deep democracy of egalitarian civic engagement that is integral to Earth Community necessarily depends on a mature sense of mutual trust, responsibility, and caring.


Excerpted from The Great Turning by David C. Korten Copyright © 2006 by David C. Korten . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     ix
The Great Turning     3
Prologue: In Search of the Possible     5
Choosing Our Future     25
The Choice     27
The Possibility     41
The Imperative     57
The Opportunity     74
Sorrows of Empire     91
When God Was a Woman     93
Ancient Empire     109
Modern Empire     126
Athenian Experiment     142
America, the Unfinished Project     157
Inauspicious Beginning     159
People Power Rebellion     171
Empire's Victory     181
Struggle for Justice     201
Wake-Up Call     217
Prisons of the Mind     237
The Great Turning     251
Beyond Strict Father versus Aging Clock     253
Creation's Epic Journey     267
Joys of Earth Community     281
Stories for a New Era     302
Birthing Earth Community     313
Leading from Below     315
Building a Political Majority     327
Liberating Creative Potential     341
Change the Story, Change the Future     354
Notes     361
Index     380
About the Author     401

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The Great Turning: From Empire To Earth Community by social activist and author David C. Korten provides a detailed and articulate argument that the organization of society through hierarchy and violence, or 'Empire' as Korten calls it, is promoting not only wealth for the few and misery for the many, but the potential extinction of humankind. The Great Turning proposes that Empire is not the inevitable natural order drawing upon evolutionary theory, developmental psychology, and religious teachings, Korten proposes that 'Earth Community' - ordering human society in an egalitarian way based on democratic principles of partnership - is indeed possible. The Great Turning outlines means by which human beings can take action for the future of the planet, and for themselves. Also highly recommended is Korten's previous expose, When Corporations Rule The World.